A song and a story

At last week’s Gospel Music Association of Canada Conference, a song written by saint ben’s member Gord Johnson won a Covenant Award for Jazz/Blues song of the year.  Performed by Steve Bell on his Devotion album, the song “Embrace the Mystery” has its roots in the liturgical life of saint benedict’s table.

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hen Steve Bell first proposed to make a recording consisting largely of the songs of Gord Johnson, it almost went without saying that “Embrace the Mystery” would be included.  Typical of much of Gord’s writing of the past several years, the song is simple in structure and designed to be sung in a repetitive chant-like fashion, yet for all of its lyrical brevity is both substantial and evocative.

The text of the song is all of four lines:

Behold what you are
Become what you receive
Take up the bread and wine
Embrace the mystery

The song was inspired by a phrase we use each week at our communion liturgy to mark the moment when the bread is raised up and broken for distribution:  “This is the body of Christ:  behold what you are; become what you receive.”   This phrase is itself based on a quote from a sermon by St Augustine, who when teaching newly baptized Christians the meaning of communion spoke of the very real and visceral connection between the bread shared and the community which shares it (St Augustine, Sermon 272 of “Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons.”)

We were a very young church back in the winter of 2004, when this song first appeared.  We were not yet an “official” congregation of the diocese, but simply a group of some 30 people gathering for worship each Sunday night, trying to discern if we were being drawn by the Spirit into ongoing life together.  Gord had committed to playing every Sunday through Lent that year, and it was on one of those Sundays that I first used the line “Behold what you are; become what you receive” to mark the breaking of the bread.  The next Sunday while we received communion, the new song was introduced, and it has since become one of the “standards” in the worship life of saint benedict’s table.

I think there are a few things that make this song work so well in worship.  It is very singable and simple, such that after hearing it just a time or two, you can just put down the songsheet and simply sing… simply pray in song.  Yet for all of its simplicity, it is a song of considerable theological and spiritual depth; the connection between the act of sharing together in the bread broken and the reality of our common life as Christ’s people; the subtle interplay between an act of faith and a faithful enacting of our reality as a people bound together; the call to “embrace the mystery” of Christ, which is really a powerful assertion that for all that our faith is a deeply thoughtful one, you just can’t reason your way to God, but at some level simply have to let go in trust.

The version Steve offers up on Devotion – and you can find a sample of the song on his website – is for me the highlight of that CD.  Steve’s arrangement picks up on the blues-based feel of the original song, and then adds soaring background vocals which give the song a deep and rich African-American style gospel edge; if you haven’t heard it, you really should give it a listen.

But you know, when 200 people sing it in worship on a Sunday night, with different voices grabbing various parts and harmonies all around the lead voice… all in the context of coming forward to gather at the table to actually share that bread and wine… at that point you’re not just hearing a great song.  At that point you are praying a deep truth.  What a gift.

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